Kenyans will soon go to the polls and elect their new president. The last time that happened in 2007, the balloting ignited deadly ethnic tensions. Weeks of violence left more than a 1,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of Kenyans left homeless.
The ethnic tension was particularly toxic in the Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa in the heart of Nairobi. It is the focal point of rival ethnicity and unemployed youth. Hoping to avoid a repeat of that violence, a Brooklyn artist and educator Joe Bergner launched a project that uses graffiti art to encourage peace and unity against ethnicity and political groups. Its called Kibera walls for peace. He engaged youth from Kibera Hamlets to paint peace murals around Kibera.
They approached and worked with the local authorities at the Rift Valley railways to use the commuter trains as a canvas to spread peace messages and togetherness on the local commuter train. The train was a major target of the previous post election violence, especially the part that goes through Kibera.
It surely didn’t hurt that authorities at Rift Valley Railway recall what happened after the previous election, when mobs of youth literally tore up the train tracks that connect Kenya and Uganda and sold them for scrap metal.
Rift Valley Railways has a lot of interest in keeping peace with the citizens in this election. So the idea of having graffiti artists come on board to spray the 10 coaches was an idea well received, since most of the Kibera dwellers use the commuter train to and from work. It’s their main means of transport. Many Kenyans use this train in the morning and evening for their daily hustle.
The train – one of the first to showcase officially authorized graffiti – travels through the massive Nairobi slum of Kibera advertising peace. As an entirely new concept, the artists’ goal is to capture the attention of spectators as never before, prompting them to view it analytically during voting time.
A portrait of Martin Luther King Jnr and the Kenyan flag grace the last coach. The message reads from the front to the back and looks like a sentence that’s beautifully crafted. Tuwache ukabila…tuwache ubaguzi…tuishi kwa amani. Bankslave painted the Obama face.
Lets vote and above all lets uphold peace amongst ourselves.
As one narrates, “We have a lot of scars in our past and especially in the last election and there is a lot of hidden grudge that cannot be seen but we have to paint this train to encourage and promote tolerance. We have to put it in their face and let them know that its not all about tribes, killing and shedding blood.”
It’s a big message that reads to the people and relays the direct message of STOP! DON’T HURT US AGAIN! Lets bring peace to the society and embrace each other.
Residents of Kibera are both surprised and touched by seeing this commuter train that always looks so dreary turned into a rolling art gallery that was free and open to. It is a great gesture by these artists to bring something positive and up lifting leading up to the elections.
Preventing a repeat of this crisis is the main objective. Bankslave, was born in Kibera and still lives there. He sees dozens of official billboards around the city promoting peace but says they don’t have the power to speak to Kibera youth and Kenyans at large like street art can.
Photography and text: Joe Lukhovi
Location: Nairobi Commuter Railways and Kibera railways